What Is It?
Native to Europe and southern Russia, Arnica montana is a perennial plant with bright yellow, daisylike flowers. It has a long history of use in herbal healing. Other species of Arnica, grown in western North America, are also used medicinally.
Internal Use. Today arnica is generally not recommended for oral use. Historically, however, herbalists once used the plant’s dried flower heads and underground stems to prepare teas and tinctures for a wide range of ailments, from anemia and depression to heart disease. This is no longer done because regular-strength arnica is now known to be poisonous when taken internally.
The only exceptions are highly diluted homeopathic formulations, in which the arnica flower has been diluted many times over. These preparations are available as sublingual (under-the-tongue) pellets. Recent studies of the effectiveness of such homeopathic preparations, however, have now challenged the once pre-eminent position that arnica once held as an oral homeopathic remedy.
Topical Use. Regular-strength topical arnica, available in creams, gels, and ointments, is wildly popular in Europe. A 1981 German study identified the plant’s active ingredients as sesquiterpene lactones, substances that act as counterirritants, stimulating circulation in the area where the arnica is applied. These substances also have mild pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial actions.
Arnica is widely used for rubbing into muscle strains and sprains caused by overuse or injury. Inflamed and painful arthritic joints are said to benefit as well. Numerous herbal formulas for psoriasis and eczema contain extracts of the herb. Some sources even recommend arnica to speed healing of bruises, insect bites, and boils.
For the greatest effectiveness, look for an arnica cream containing approximately 15% arnica oil and apply it to the affected area as needed.
There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with arnica when applied topically.
Except for homeopathic preparations, don’t take arnica internally. Small amounts of this herb can irritate mucous membranes, cause vomiting and diarrhea, and make you drowsy. As little as 1 ounce of arnica tincture taken orally can cause shortness of breath, raise blood pressure, and damage the heart. High doses can be fatal.
Don’t apply any form of arnica to broken skin.
As with any herbal remedy, contact dermatitis (an allergic reaction) to topical arnica can occur. Avoid this herb if you are sensitive to arnica or to any plant in the daisy family.
Be sure to use only the recommended amount of topical arnica. If too much is applied, or if it’s used for too long, topical arnica can cause redness, swelling, itching, and blisters.
Some sources recommend a diluted arnica tincture or tea to use as a gargle for reducing sore throat-related inflammation. If you do this, take great care not to swallow the preparation. Safer alternatives are certainly available.
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David Edelberg, MD